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Congressional shuffle



When 2000 began, Florida was seen as a solidly Republican state. In the last few years, the GOP had taken over the Florida Legislature, the governor's office and most local governments. Given that the popular governor was candidate George W. Bush's brother, it was assumed that W. would carry Florida easily.

Bill McCollum hoped to ride W.'s coattails. After 20 years in Congress -- after, it must be noted, campaigning on a term-limits platform -- the conservative 8th District representative sought to parlay his notoriety as a House "manager" during the Clinton impeachment hearings into a run at the retiring Connie Mack's U.S. Senate seat.

One miscalculation: The Democrats didn't cede the state. Instead, they rallied minorities angry at Gov. Jeb's anti-affirmative-action initiative, and actively pursued Florida's elderly population, who were understandably cautious of W.'s Medicare and Social Security plans.

When the polls tightened, McCollum was on his own -- and that wasn't a good thing. Unknown outside of Central Florida, he tried like W. to remake himself into a "compassionate conservative," despite a two-decade-long record of anti-consumer, right-wing votes. It didn't work. Democrat Bill Nelson, a former congressman and the state's insurance commissioner, won 51 percent to 46 percent, beating McCollum even in his own backyard, Orange County, which Nelson won by 8 percentage points.

But if you think you'll miss McCollum, you don't need to look far to find his political clone: Ric Keller, who come January will take McCollum's seat on Capitol Hill.

This was supposed to be one of the Democrats' best shots nationally at retaking a congressional seat. Indeed, six months ago, Keller languished in political obscurity. He had never held office; his one claim to political fame came as a behind-the-scenes attorney on Everglades legislation. Even his own Republican party had written him off. But he displayed a resiliency rare even among the most ambitious politicians. Of course, Keller's ascent reflects the influence of money in politics more than his own message, which was a riot of tax cuts, term limits, education reform, pro-gun policy and local road construction (possibly to the detriment of the Wekiva River basin). The kingmaker in this race was the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative group dedicated to populating Congress with real conservatives, not those wimpy ones there now.

The Club jumped into the Republican primary, funneling Keller $200,000 in direct donations and spending at least $100,000 in soft-money ads that attacked GOP opponent Bill Sublette's supposedly liberal record. Sublette -- a moderate state legislator supported by the party establishment -- still won the primary, but the race went into a runoff. The Club was ready to jump ship; because Keller was nearly broke, that likely would have ended his candidacy. When third-place finisher Bob Hering threw his support to Keller, however, the Club -- along with its money -- reconsidered. And Keller won the nomination.

Democrats cheered. They'd expected to run their choice, former Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin, against Sublette, and figured they could knock off Keller easily. Yet Chapin's ineffective campaign didn't run on her accomplishments as chairman, choosing instead to embrace the party's national themes -- such as gun control and Medicare reform -- and that simply didn't play well here. Moreover, local Democrats assumed Chapin's popularity in Orange County would translate into votes throughout the district. But District 8, in fact, is a Republican's wet dream: It cuts out many of the county's minority, Democrat-friendly territories that might have carried Chapin to Washington.

The ultimate irony of Keller's victory came just a day before the election, when Arizona senator and campaign-finance reformer John McCain swung by to give him a boost. The $600,000 Keller took from an out-of-state, third-party organization marks his as exactly the type of campaign -- and candidate -- that McCain wants to do away with.

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